Shinsekai in the golden light

Nishinari and The Way Things Ought To Be

Nishinari is widely reputed to be the most run-down, crime-ridden, and dangerous part of Ōsaka 大阪—and about as close to a slum as you are likely to find anywhere in Japan 日本. This may explain the preponderance of cheap backpacker accommodation in Shinimamiya, the area just south of Shinsekai 新世界 (literally “New World”), where I stayed for a single night last May before returning to Taiwan. Although I only had a few hours to work with I couldn’t resist wandering around Nishinari to see just how bad it was. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the Downtown Eastside, the festering carbuncle of Vancouver, which I had wandered through on many occasions.

Hotel Toyo in Shinimamiya
Hotel Toyo, my cheap hotel in Shinimamiya. It’s not a bad place at all. I’d stay there again.

When I arrived at my hotel from Nara it was already late in the afternoon. I dropped my stuff off in what amounted to a musty tatami mat jail cell—though for about USD$15 a night I was not complaining—and raced downstairs to hit the streets and capture something of Nishinari’s seedy charm and faded glamour.

The entrance to Hotel Malusan in Shinimamiya
An abandoned hotel in Shinimamiya. I hadn’t previously seen much evidence of decay on this trip to Japan.
Abandoned storefront in Shinimamiya
An abandoned storefront in Shinimamiya.
Sundown over Shinimamiya
Daylight was fading by the time I hit the street to walk around and take some photos.

My first stop was Shinsekai proper, the old neighbourhood just north of the railway line loosely modeled on Paris and New York City. It was mostly empty, with just a few stragglers passing through, most of them looking like they were on their way home from work. It was not a lively place, nor was there an unusual degree of decay (based on what I’m used to, namely Taiwan), but it was clear that the place had seen better days.

Shinsekai entrance
The eastern entrance to Shinsekai in Nishinari ward.
Octopus underpass
Crossing under the railway line to Shinsekai.
Heart locked in Shinsekai
Lock your heart up in Shinsekai.
The streets of Shinsekai
The streets of Shinsekai were mostly empty.
Fierce streed food warrior
A rather fierce statue outside a closed street food vendor.
Shinsekai in the golden light
Shinsekai in the golden light.

One of the more mysterious features of the urban landscape of Osaka is the Billiken, a cherubic statue emblazoned with the description “The God Of Things As They Ought To Be”. I knew nothing more than that at the time but have done some reading into the topic since then. Turns out these idols are American in origin and they came to the creator in a dream. Deposit a coin in the box and rub the feet of the Billiken and your wish may come true.

Tsutenkaku and the moon
Tsutenkaku and the moon.
A walk through Shinsekai
Tsutenkaku is the heart of Shinsekai.

Tsūtenkaku 通天閣 is the name of the towering landmark at the heart of Shinsekai. Built in 1956, this retrofuturistic throwback is the second tower to stand at this location. The first was dismantled for the war effort in 1943 after suffering a fire. It has the look of something from the dawn of the Space Age.

Now entering the sketch
Having finished with Shinsekai I cut south into the seedy covered shopping streets of Nishinari ward.

Having completed a brief tour of Shinsekai I circled back to the other side of the railway line and began my exploration of the streets to the south. I didn’t have far to go before chancing upon a bunch of old people sprawled out in front of a boarded-up storefront sorting cans and smoking cigarettes. I made my way deeper into the sketch, passing 100 yen vending machines, crummy karaoke bars, and cheap grocery stores. There were many street people around, almost all of them old men, barely sparing me a glance. I certainly looked out of place, bouncing around corners with my DSLR camera in hand, but I never felt like I was in any real danger.

Street traffic in Nishinari
Street traffic in Nishinari. Things are starting to feel very weird by now.
100 yen vending machine in Nishinari
The infamous 100 yen vending machines common all over Nishinari ward.
Old buildings in Nishinari
An old corner lot building in Nishinari.
All boarded up in Nishinari
All boarded up in Nishinari.
A historic building in Tobita Shinchi
A famous restaurant in Tobita Shinchi.

With a rosy orange glow consuming the western sky I arrived in Tobita Shinchi 飛田新地, a traditional district surrounded on all sides by the urban decay of Nishinari. I hadn’t any idea what I had stumbled upon at first. The buildings were all historic in appearance, much more so than anything else I saw during my brief time in Osaka, and the area was clean and well-kept, faintly illuminated by orb-like street lights and paper lanterns wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain. Each business was identified by a glowing white sign over the doorway, most of them in kanji. It felt like a place out of time, a throwback to the pre-modern era.

Tobita Shinchi at sunset
Tobita Shinchi at sunset.

Tobita Shinchi revealed its nature to me as soon as I wandered into view of the first doorway, or genkan 玄関. Here, old women perch on small chairs, sizing up potential customers with strategically placed mirrors. Many made inviting gestures, others turned aside and ignored me as I sauntered on, a loose grip on my camera to indicate understanding of the unspoken rules of the district. Beyond the threshold, inside every open doorway, incredibly bright lights shone down on a raised dais surrounded by ornate floral arrangements, decorations, and maneki-neko 招き猫 (literally “beckoning cat”, a lucky talisman seen in East Asian businesses all around the world). The centerpiece of these lavish displays: a woman kneeling in supplication, fancifully dressed to suit all kinds of fantasies, dazzling eyes and a wide beaming smile hoping to close the sale. And it just goes on and on like this, street after street.

A historic building in Tobita Shinchi
A historic building in Tobita Shinchi.

I didn’t do anything more than window shop, not having the time, the money, the need, nor the inclination to find out what goes on upstairs. Even so, I have to admit that this part of my tour of Nishinari was as fascinating as it was unexpected. I have wandered around several of the infamous red light districts of Bangkok and Amsterdam, most of which were more melancholic than they were titillating, but Tobita Shinchi, by opening a window into a forgotten past, was almost bewitching in a way. I don’t mean to glorify it, for there are no doubt some ethical issues to consider, but walking through the area was an interesting cultural experience I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to adventurous travelers. Be respectful if you do pass through—and not only because the whole operation is reputedly run by yakuza.

A covered street in Nishinari
Deeper into the covered streets of Nishinari.

I wandered deeper into Nishinari, following the many shōtengai 商店街 (covered shopping streets) more or less at random, most of them lined with metal shutters that might not have been opened in years. Maybe one in ten shops were open, most of them dingy karaoke bars or dollar stores, although several of the cut-rate grocers and pachinko parlours appeared to be doing a brisk trade.

Deeper into the heart of Nishinari
Deeper into the dark heart of Nishinari.
Workclothes shop in Nishinari
Working class shops in Nishinari ward.
Cheap supermarket in Nishinari
One of many cheap supermarkets in Nishinari.
The moon over Nishinari
The moon over Nishinari.
After closing along one of the many covered streets of Nishinari
After dark in one of Nishinari’s many covered shopping streets.
Deep into the sketch in Nishinari
Deep into the sketch.
Espresso bar in Nishinari
An anachronistic espresso bar in Nishinari ward.
Not much remains
Not much remains apart from cheap grocery stores and seedy little bars.
Daylight fading in Nishinari ward, Osaka
Daylight fading and another night begins.
Communication tower in Nishinari
Communication tower in Nishinari.
Communication breakdown
Communication breakdown.
Pachinko sign in Nishinari at sunset
Pachinko sign in Nishinari.
Cheap supermarket in one of Nishinari’s covered streets
Yet another cheap supermarket in one of Nishinari’s covered shopping streets.

Day turned to night and my feet began to swell from the amount of walking I had done these few days in Japan 日本. Without suitable lighting for even grainy, low-quality photos, I made my way back to my hotel. I hadn’t a map nor cellular access so I navigated by instinct, thankfully without mishap.

Inside one of Nishinari’s cheap supermarkets
Inside one of Nishinari’s cheap supermarkets,

On the uneventful walk back I pondered Nishinari’s notorious reputation. Was it really all that dangerous or merely poor? Had I been lucky? Most of the time I felt like a ghost passing through the ward, capturing moments without interacting with anyone hardly at all. No understanding seemed to pass between me and another mortal soul. I can’t even recall making eye contact with anyone apart from the old women of Tobita Shinchi.

After nightfall in Shinsekai
After nightfall in Shinsekai.

Later on I took a brief trip to Dotonbori for a more conventional tourist experience. I passed through Shinsekai once more, curious to see if it had come alive at night, but it wasn’t any busier than when I was there in the late afternoon. I wondered, is this what people wish of the Billiken? Is this how it ought to be?